Mexico may be one of the U.S.’s top agricultural trading partners, but this relationship has plenty of problems. Consider the decree that Mexico’s president, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, issued on December 30, 2020, banning genetically engineered corn and glyphosate, a popular herbicide. It further undermines agricultural trade between the two nations.

This action occurred despite the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) going into force on July 1, 2020 (not that it wouldn’t have been a problem before). The new agreement was supposed to modernize its predecessor, the North American Free Trade Agreement. For example, the USMCA has a section focused on agricultural biotechnology, in which the countries “confirm the importance of encouraging agricultural innovation and facilitating trade in products of agricultural biotechnology.”

There are also new provisions that help to ensure a stronger scientific basis for sanitary (human health) and phytosanitary (animal and plant health) measures imposed by the countries.

Mexico’s bans would run counter to the USMCA and its recognition of the importance of agricultural biotechnology and sound science.

While the presidential decree is vague, here’s what it appears to do:

1) Mexico would phase out genetically engineered corn for human consumption by no later than January 31, 2024.

The rationale for the ban is far from clear. In the decree, Mexico cites such justifications as food self-sufficiency and public health (an unjustified concern).

This ban is extremely problematic for American farmers because Mexico is the top export market for U.S. corn, over 90 percent of which is genetically engineered.

The scope of this ban has been in question and remains so. Of particular concern is whether the ban covers corn used for animal feed; most U.S. corn exports to Mexico are used for this purpose.

Recently, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack asserted that based on talks with Mexico, the ban would cover genetically engineered corn for human food only, and not for animal feed. While this would certainly minimize the damage of such a ban, it remains to be seen if this is how the ban will play out in practice.

There are Mexican concerns as well regarding this ban. Mexican industry representatives are concerned about the impact on the country’s food supply chain.

In addition, Mexican farmers are worried about lack of access to innovative crop varieties that can make food production more efficient.

2) Mexico would phase out the use of glyphosate, with a complete ban by 2024, citing the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC).

Glyphosate is used to kill different types of weeds and grasses and is not only used in agriculture but also in lawn and garden care. The herbicide is extremely popular and is particularly important for U.S. corn and soybean farmers.

In 2015, IARC released a report that labeled glyphosate as a “probable carcinogen.” This went against the assessments of not only the Environmental Protection Agency but also the European Food Safety Authority, and the Joint Food and Agriculture Organization /World Health Organization Meeting on Pesticide Residues, among other international bodies.

It should be noted that IARC has been consistently criticized for its unscientific classification of carcinogens and the agency seems to create more confusion than information. In fact, the agency has even found “that drinking very hot beverages probably causes cancer.” These very hot drinks were deemed to be “probably carcinogenic,” just like anabolic steroids, lead, eating red meat, and working night shifts.

This glyphosate ban will likely cause harm to Mexican farmers. In 2020, 45 percent of Mexican farmers used the herbicide. Mexican farmers will have to find an alternative approved herbicide to glyphosate that their crops, including corn, will be able to tolerate. This will be a likely difficult and costly task.

So, what should be done?

The Biden administration should be proactive in addressing the bans. Before the entry into force of the USMCA and the recent bans, former USTR Robert Lighthizer wrote to Mexico’s Secretary of Economy urging the resolution of biotech and glyphosate issues that had already previously existed.

The Biden administration should build upon these initial efforts, especially in light of Mexico’s bans.
Taking action would be an important defense of American agriculture, and modern agricultural production overall. It would signal to other countries that the U.S. will lead on agricultural biotechnology and ensure sound science is applied so that sanitary and phytosanitary measures are not a pretext for protectionist schemes by other countries.

This is an important opportunity for the Biden administration to show leadership in trade policy. Let’s hope they meet this challenge.

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Daren Bakst is The Heritage Foundation’s senior research fellow in agriculture policy. Gabriella Beaumont-Smith is a policy analyst specializing in macroeconomics in Heritage’s Center for Data Analysis.